For a time, Apple's iPad seemed like the future of personal computing, as well as a strong third pillar to its burgeoning business of selling computers and (mostly) phones. In more recent years, the iPad has floundered, as the company struggled to find just how the tablet fits into its ecosystem. Yesterday, in deeds more than words, Apple confirmed it. The iPad is struggling, and Cupertino doesn't know what to do with it anymore.
Yesterday's announcement wasn't delivered with a flashy presentation and a winning smile. The Apple store went down for a few hours, and then went back up with some new products. This isn't unheard of for product revisions, like the also-announced Product Red iPhones. But this was the unveiling of the new line of iPad and iPad Pro. I would have expected fanfare and a touting of new whiz-bang features, but we saw none of that.
Maybe that's because the new line simply doesn't have new features. This was a hardware revision, unaccompanied by a software update that makes even older iPads feel new. That's understandable to a point. iOS11 is surely coming later this year. But even in terms of hardware, this revision was fairly minor.
Sales of iPad have been slumping. CBS reports that shipments of the iPad have decreased for the last 12 quarters in a row. Industry watchers have attributed the slump to any number of factors, from the longevity of an iPad to the increased power and screen size of phones. They've tended to last consumers 5-6 years instead of 2-3, making them more akin to a standard Mac laptop or desktop than a cell phone. The Pro and Mini have both failed to catch on, as simply making the device larger or smaller isn't enough of a hardware distinction to spur new sales.
Cupertino seems caught in an infinite loop. Without strong sales, it has no reason to invest heavily in development of new hardware features. Without new hardware features, consumers have no reason to upgrade.
That isn't to say the product announcement didn't have anything new to announce. The new iPad line is simpler, with less confusion over the difference between an iPad and an Air. The starting device gets a bigger, brighter screen and a faster chip as cribbed from its successful iPhone. Plus, as a company notorious for its "Apple Tax," the sharp price reduction comes as a surprise. The new iPad starts at $329, undercutting competitors from Sony and Samsung.
These are solid, market-facing decisions. But Apple, a company that has avoided seeming too professorial in explaining its business interests, doesn't tend to make its announcements in the context of the bottom line. Apple's public face is about capturing a sense of wonder, and trusting that the magic–along with its legion of fans–will do the rest. This particular revision was short on magic, and long on practical business decisions, and those simply aren't the image Apple likes to project.
Instead, Apple frames its hardware in lofty terms. This is why its take on the tablet was presented as the future of personal computing. If Apple still does believe in that vision of the future, though, it didn't show yesterday. We can only hope that it will treat the iPad line with more reverance than the iPod. It completely ignored the 15th anniversary of the iPod last year.